Homeless families are occupying vacant homes in the Los Angeles area as two major crises collide in California: the years-long affordable housing crisis and the immediate, mounting coronavirus pandemic.
Starting on Saturday — as cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, ballooned statewide — homeless mother Martha Escudero, 42, and her 10- and 8-year-old daughters moved into a vacant house owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ruby Gordillo, 33, and her three kids, ages 8 to 14 — who had been “precariously housed,” living five people to a one-bedroom — also moved in, along with Benito Flores, 73, who had been living in his van for years.
It’s part of an effort they’re calling “Reclaiming Our Homes” — and over the past week, other homeless people organized by the group have moved into 12 vacant houses in the area, the Los Angeles Times reported. Caltrans owns dozens more empty homes in the area, which were bought up under a previous plan to extend a freeway. (That plan was nixed before development began.)
The group is demanding that local and state governments take action immediately to provide housing to homeless families, which are particularly at risk of being exposed to coronavirus.
A Caltrans spokesperson told in an interview on Thursday that the agency was “aware of the situation” and “in discussions regarding the use of these properties.” The agency did not immediately respond to clarify if it intends to allow the families to stay and use other such properties to house more people experiencing homelessness.
California, where about one-quarter of the nation’s homeless people reside, is also among the states with the highest number of reported COVID-19 cases: Nearly 700 Californians have confirmed cases and more than a dozen have died as of Thursday — and the figures keep mounting each day. Earlier this week, the first homeless person was reported to have died of COVID-19 in Northern California.
“There’s people living in shelters, a lot are dirty, libraries and gyms have shut down — there’s nowhere for homeless people to even keep their hygiene up,” Escudero told in an interview on Tuesday.
“Since the government’s not doing their job, we the people have to take power into our own hands,” she added, saying she’d like to see all vacant state-owned properties used to house homeless families and seniors — “those most vulnerable … especially in the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
The LA-based group was inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a group of homeless mothers in Oakland, California, who occupied a vacant house owned by Wedgewood real estate company late last year. After the Oakland moms were removed by sheriff’s deputies in January, followed by an outcry from supporters, Wedgewood agreed to sell the property to an Oakland community land trust. Negotiations are ongoing. Meanwhile, the mothers have been living elsewhere, and some are experiencing homelessness, organizers told.
“We are all being urged to stay home and practice social distancing — but how can you do that when your family is homeless?” Oakland-based Moms 4 Housing founder Dominique Walker said in a statement of support for the LA families.
While law enforcement has patrolled outside the newly occupied LA houses, they haven’t yet ordered anyone out, according to Escudero. She said she’d like the opportunity to negotiate with the government to pay rent, noting that she, Gordillo and Flores all work, but are unable to afford rent in the area.
“Skid Row used to just be downtown. Now it’s the state of California,” Escudero said, referencing the notorious blocks-long area where many homeless people reside unsheltered in LA. The native Angeleno said three years ago she paid $1,200 rent on a two-bedroom, but now similar places go for over $2,000 per month.
In Los Angeles County, there were nearly 59,000 homeless people on a given night in January 2019 — up 12% from the previous year.
Half a dozen state lawmakers wrote a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) earlier this week, calling on his administration to make the “scores of homes” owned by Caltrans in the LA area available for occupancy “immediately.”
Newsom has announced several plans to support homeless residents throughout the coronavirus pandemic, including committing to distribute over 1,300 trailers across the state in the coming days, as well as securing two hotels in Oakland with nearly 400 rooms. The state is negotiating with about 900 other hotels and motels statewide — though the tens of thousands of rooms represented would not only be used to house those experiencing homelessness, but also to meet a potential surge in rooms needed as the hospital system may reach capacity in treating COVID-19 cases.
Escudero noted that hotel rooms are “very temporary,” adding, “Housing is a human right.”